Friday, March 25, 2011

The Bible and the Word of God

Steve Douglas takes a shot at the frequently heard statement: "We might not like it, but it's in the Bible, so ...":
I’m very much disturbed to see how often it is that Christians are so devoutly interested in upholding their scriptures that they don’t mind if either God or neighbor gets black and blue in the process.

The trick to being an evangelical these days seems to be the willingness to maintain that evil is not necessarily evil when it comes to God. Besmirching His character under the ironic cover of defending God, what passes for good Christian apologetics is actually much more of a defense of prized doctrines such as inerrancy or Augustinian/Reformed soteriology than the only thing worth defending, viz. God’s character. Defending both our carefully constructed doctrines and God’s character cannot always be done simultaneously because they are often at loggerheads (or else many popular apologists would be without a job). Slick, ear-tickling apologetics serve the much-in-demand function of reassuring people that the Bible is everything they think it needs to be in order for their faith to remain comfortable and unquestionable.
I have heard variations on the statement Steve is criticizing, usually from people who are clearly uncomfortable with what the Bible says on a particular subject, but because of their commitment to inerrancy do not feel like they can question it. I thought I'd add to what Steve has said by describing how I think of the Bible. My view has been cobbled together from my interaction with many sources, so it's not original.

The proclamation of the Gospel in word and sacrament constitutes the Church. This is the foundation on which I base my understanding of the Bible's role.

God has always spoken to God's people - to Abraham, to Moses, to Israel through Moses' law, to Israel through the prophets. And now in these last days God has spoken to us in the Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). The Apostles were sent by Jesus to tell the world of what God has accomplished through Jesus' ministry.

The Bible is the record of the way in which they set about this mission. The Old Testament was retained because it spoke of the Messiah to come. The early church followed the example of Jesus himself in reinterpreting the Old Testament in light of what they had experienced. The gospels are didactic recollections of the life and ministry of Jesus. The epistles teach and shape the Church in its mission. And so on.

The reason we care about the Bible is because it tells us about Jesus, in one way or another. It is a witness, not a divine book sent from heaven with authority in and of itself. It it authoritative insofar as it conveys the Word of God - that is, Jesus himself. The Bible is subservient to the Word of God.

Understood in this way the Bible is sacramental. It is, like the sacraments, first and foremost encountered in the ministry of the Church. It is a means of the performative proclamation of the Gospel. It conveys heavenly grace (the Word of God) through earthly, physical means (the Bible).

The problem with those who say "we might not like it but it's in the Bible" is that they are placing the Bible over the Word of God. Jesus is God's perfect revelation, not the Bible. If the Bible doesn't jive with what we learn of God in the life and ministry of Jesus then the problem is with either our interpretation of the text or the Bible itself. I believe that people are usually too quick to conclude the problem is with the Bible. On the other hand, sometimes they're right.

We must not hold so firmly to our idea of biblical inspiration or authority that we end up portraying God as a monster. To do so is to undermine the revelation of God in Jesus.

Of course, the fact that something makes us uncomfortable does not mean it is untrue. God should makes us uncomfortable in some ways. It is also true that God's thoughts are not our thoughts. But these facts have too often been used in ways that end up discrediting the Gospel.

It's all about Jesus. The proclamation of God's action in his life and ministry is the sine qua non of the Church. Nothing - not even the Bible - has authority over that.

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After writing this I saw this post from Arni Zachariassen and thought I'd append it. John Piper is at it again:
God has a good and all-wise purpose for the heart-rending calamity in Japan on March 11, 2011 that appears to have cost tens of thousands of lives. ... The power felt in an earthquake reveals the fearful magnificence of God. This is a great gift since “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10). Most of the world does not fear the Lord and therefore lacks saving wisdom. The thunder-clap summons to fear God is a mercy to those who live.
Arni replies that this sort of theology strips language of its coherence. Killing thousands of people is not good - yet when God does it it becomes good:
I have difficulty seeing how we can go on at all saying anything about God after such a radical redefinition and relativising of the concept of goodness. What difference would it make here if we decided to call God evil instead of good? By the rules of Piper's game, we can logically call God anything we want, regardless of his alleged works. God is good, even when he does what in all other circumstances would be regarded as evil.

It is not the place of humans to test and judge God. But it's imperative and absolutely so that we judge God-narratives. If God is truly good - and as a follower of the crucified Christ I believe absolutely that that's the case -, then we must reject narratives that portray God as evil.
The text I bolded neatly captures one of the things I was trying to say above.

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About Me

I'm Rachel's husband and Darcy's daddy. I'm a Hoosier, an accountant, and an Episcopalian. Politically, I'm a progressive who believes in the preferential option for the poor. I use the blog as a sort of journal - to interact with my reading and sketch out ideas.